Texas League wrangles fans old-fashioned way

Ballparks recall early eras, promote fan experience

(Arkansas Travelers)

By Paige Schector / MLB.com | March 14, 2006 3:19 PM

Texas League ballparks are defined by their quirks, whether they harken back to an earlier era or bring the fan experience to a new level.

Take the league's oldest park. Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, Ark., will play host to its final schedule of games this season, including the midseason All-Star Game festivities on June 22. The park, which opened back in 1932, features a flag pole in play inside the center-field fence. The "Screen Monster," a 55- to 60-foot high fence on a 20-foot wall spanning 295 feet across that stands as close as 333 feet away from home plate, protects motorists on the Wilbur Mills Parkway (I-630) from small, round surprises.

"It has that old-school charm," Corpus Christi broadcaster Matt Hicks said of the park and its main attraction. "The (Screen Monster) starts in foul territory in right and extends above the outfield wall all the way to left-center. There are, though, a few homers every year that scale it."

Arkansas play-by-play announcer Phil Elson waxed eloquently about the big fence in last year's Travelers program. "Boston has Fenway and the Green Monster. Here in Little Rock we have Freeway and the Screen Monster," he said. "Is it reachable? Yes, but only by a pitch hit extremely hard at the right angle. Every baseball season at least 10 home runs make their way over the Screen Monster and onto I-630, and every one of them is crushed like road kill."

Know the old saying "hit it into another zip code?" Well, it's really possible at Ray Winder. John Young, Anthony Lewis and Dallas McPherson are a few of the Travs who have accomplished the feat more recently. "A pitch knocked over the highway (90 additional feet past the right-field fence) lands in the Fair Park neighborhood and therefore goes from 72205 (home plate) to 72204 (South Monroe Street)," Elson explained. "Come batting practice time, you'll find Texas League hitters trying to play mailman."

That isn't the park's only appeal though, Hicks said. "I love the old 'open air' press box that hangs just under the roof behind home plate directly above the box seat patrons below." And the park may be old, but you wouldn't be able to tell from its employees' fastidiousness. "It's the cleanest facility you could imagine," Texas League president Tom Kayser said. "People have noted without exaggeration that you could eat off of the concourse there."

A game at Whataburger Field doubles as a trip to the waterfront. Just over 300 feet away from the left-field fence stands the Port of Corpus Christi, while the counterpart view in right shows off the Harbor Bridge to great effect. The "Lady Lex," a de-commissioned World War II aircraft carrier, and state aquarium also are visible from the park.

"The views from inside the stadium are the best I've seen in my 17 years of broadcasting Minor League baseball games," Hicks said. The sight hasn't been lost on the league president either. "During the game huge tankers or cargo ships will pass up or down the waterway," Kayser said. "[It's] quite a scene."

Past the wall in dead center stands a youth league baseball and softball park where wiffle ball games are played in season. The grounds also include a playground, rock-climbing wall and a basketball court. "I'm not aware of any other facility that has another baseball park on its grounds," Hicks said. "We anticipate that about 100 games will be played there this coming season."

Meanwhile the adults get to frolic on their own in a pool and spa area, rented exclusively to groups during the season. Cotton warehouses once on the site have been converted into picnic and party areas. And fans of all ages can admire "For the Love of the Game," a bronze statue depicting a Minor League player contemplating the sport and his future in it.

As far as appreciation of the game goes, there's no looking past Tulsa's Drillers Stadium. Fans hear a familiar cry -- "Let's go, Tulllsssaaa!" -- almost every game. The Drillers' clarion call was started in 1941 by Andy Andrews, who used to bellow the cheer from his seat when the team came to bat in the first inning. Eventually Andrews was hired by the club and did the cry live for 20 years. His recorded chant still echoes at the stadium today, although not during every game. "It is a nice bow to tradition," Kayser said.

Drillers Stadium also leans toward tradition -- Wrigley Field's -- with a variation on Chicago's short porch. Running 349 feet to left-center, the outfield wall stands 13 feet high with more than 50 feet of fence on top of that. But home runs topping both are often deposited on neighboring 15th Street, a pretty bustling road, according to Tulsa PR director Brian Carroll.

"You still have to hit it pretty good, but many of them still clear the net," he said. "(In 1989), Sammy Sosa was here and he hit a game-winning home run over the net. At the time there was a supermarket across 15th Street. There was a guy coming out of the store with his groceries, the ball rolled right to his feet and he picked it up. He probably didn't know what he had."

And Tulsa provides the league's only "true" upper deck in Hicks' eyes. "It's all bench seating, but if you're low in the upper deck, it's a great view of the game," he said.

The higher you are at a Wranglers' game in Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on the banks of the Arkansas River, the more you can enjoy the Wichita skyline just beyond it. But closer to the field has its charms too, namely a look at a unique combination -- artificial turf infield and natural grass outfield. Beyond the outfield fence stands a monument garden -- the joint effort of the city and the club -- commemorating milestones in the professional and amateur history of the 72-year-old park.

Kayser deems the view from the seats, press box and suites to be the best in the league. "The second deck sits no more than 10 rows from the field," he said. "You sit, almost literally, right on top of the action."

The design of Midland's Citibank Ballpark proves inviting, as evidenced by Kayser and Hicks' kudos. The visiting bullpen sits diagonally to the left-field line, while the home counterpart sits in front of the right-field wall.

"I like the configuration -- the 'bowing in' of the wall in left and the home bullpen on the warning track in right," Hicks said. "Both created unusual dimensions down the line," Kayser added. "A high wall all around that bulges and curves around left to right. With the ever-present Texas wind, their outfield is tough to play."

Looking for an entertainment center feel to your ballpark scoreboard? Check out the massive 36- x 20-foot screen at Hammons Field in Springfield. "It literally feels as if you're watching a big screen on the couch in your living room," said Mike Lindskog, voice of the Cardinals.

Kayser likes parking himself in the park's Redbird Roost. "That is the best fan seating area in the league," he said. "There's a nice breeze and a great view of the action on the field."

And apparently a lot of fans of the Cardinals' Double-A affiliate like attending games at the 2-year-old park. "The fans there are great and always wear (the team's trademark color) red without being prompted," Hicks said. "They are rabid supporters of their Cardinals," Kayser added.

Behind-the-scenes, the park also houses a unique training facility just beyond the right-center field wall. Two batting cages retract, allowing for infield practice and other drills. "I would describe it as one-of-a-kind in baseball," Lindskog said. "The surface is turf and provides for some true hops."

Mother Nature plays a part in the action at San Antonio's Wolff Stadium. In the evenings, a strong Southern wind blows in at 10-15 miles per hour from right-center field. "It makes the Wolff play very, very big," said Mickey Holt, the Missions' director of public relations. "It is known as one of the best pitching parks in all of baseball."

The Wolff also offers up a look at planes landing at Lackland Air Force Base and a new children's park. But two distinctive promotions capture their share of attention, namely the taco chase and a Hooters sign.

"San Antonio has Henry the Puffy Taco, the lovable loser of the seventh-inning taco chase," Kayser said. "Fans are still eating it up after hundreds of races."

"We have a sign that has holes in the owl's eyes," Holt said. "If a player ever hits a ball through the eyes, everyone in the park wins 10 free wings from Hooters. In over 12 seasons it has never happened, but players have come very close."

Fans in Frisco don't even have to be in attendance to enjoy the RoughRiders' play at Dr Pepper/Seven Up Ballpark. Beyond the wall in center field stands the 15-story Embassy Suites hotel. "It towers above the stadium," Hicks said. "You can watch a game from the hotel if you have a room on the fifth floor or higher."

But those crossing the gates do get to enjoy other interesting features, namely the bullpens in the middle of the stands, the "corral" seating on San Juan Hill, pavilions, a swimming pool in right field for private parties, decorative bathrooms and gigantic plasma signs on the outfield walls. Holt heartily approves of the distinctive setup. "It's a unique look of the ballpark, like a Southern plantation more than a stadium."

Paige Schector is a staff writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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